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Phone scam puts Amish Experience on hold

Paul Metzler, a tour guide at The Amish Experience, fielded the first call related to the telephone scam that disrupted operations at the Lancaster County tourist attraction. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

When you run a small business, you learn to prepare for anything, because it’s likely anything will happen that week, or even that day.

But nothing could have prepared Brad Igou for what his small business went through July 14. The president of tourist attraction Amish Experience at Plain & Fancy Farm in Lancaster County had no training, no frame of reference and no one to talk to on a day when his business essentially was held hostage for about five hours.

Incoming phone lines were jammed for hours, with angry — sometimes threatening — callers on the other end. No one at Amish Experience knew why callers were so mad. But as the day wore on, it became clear the business was a victim of a phone scam called “spoofing.”

And there was nothing Igou or anyone at Amish Experience could do about it.

“That was the hardest part,” Igou said. “Just waiting until it was over.”

Spoofing occurs when a scammer steals a business’s caller identification number and location, and then uses the information to make robocalls. Because the scammer is using another company’s ID, the robocall appears to be coming not from an unknown or unrecognized phone number but from a more trusted number — or at least one a person would be less likely to ignore.

Experts say the scam is surprisingly easy to pull off, and even more surprisingly, it’s nearly impossible for victims and phone companies to prevent.

Phone scams in general are on the rise. As businesses focus on cybersecurity, scammers have gravitated back to playing phone tricks, according to Terry Nelms, an analyst at Atlanta-based phone security company Pindrop.

“Since 2013, we’ve seen an increase by about 45 percent in fraud calls,” he said. “Spoofing used to be very expensive before 2000, but it’s much less expensive now. The cost probably wouldn’t reach four digits.”

Amy Spangler

Here’s how it played out at the Amish Experience, which offers guided tours of Amish farms and other aspects of Pennsylvania Dutch life.

Around 10:15 a.m. on July 14, Igou said people started calling Amish Experience complaining about a robocall. Within 15 minutes, all seven of the Amish Experience’s phone lines were jammed with callers. Every time an employee picked up the phone, it was the same thing: The person on the other end complaining that they just got a robocall from Amish Experience.

The calls continued until late afternoon.

The company had not sent any robocalls, and had no idea where the claims originated, but callers were threatening lawsuits, asking to be put on a “do not call” list or just asking not to be called again. The robocalls were selling some kind of insurance plan.

“We had people yelling at us, and we didn’t even know what to say,” Igou said. “We’re two hours into this, and we didn’t truly know what was going on. All we could keep telling people was, ‘We’re not calling you.’”

No one realized the business had been spoofed because no one there ever heard of the scam, Igou said.

The company had to use cellphones to reach phone provider Comcast since the business lines remained jammed. After being pointed in several different directions, Igou reached someone in Comcast’s fraud department who dispatched the sad truth:

The problem is common. And it’s practically impossible to stop, Igou said he was told by Comcast. Comcast declined to comment for this story.

“They told us we just had to ride it out,” Igou said. “So that’s what we did.”

By about 3:30 p.m. — five hours after phones started ringing — the calls slowed and actual customers were able to get through to the Amish Experience. It is unclear how much business the company may have lost as potential customers were unable to get through. Or how much damage was done to the company’s reputation.

“While I’m not too concerned about someone in Washington (state) worried about the Amish Experience, to know that these calls went out under our name to maybe tens of thousands of people, you never know,” Igou said. “Lots of times we’re getting calls from people wanting information on our tours, they want to know what times activities are taking place, but we couldn’t answer those calls that day.”

Sadie Martin, an assistant press secretary at the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General, said the office has had 662 reports of phone scams this year from consumers, around the same number of phone scams at this point last year, she said. The office doesn’t take complaints from businesses.

Igou doesn’t know why his business became a target. But he suspects it might stem from an interest in Amish culture and community.

“I think there is a trust there, and people are curious,” Igou said. “I have no idea why people would think the Amish suddenly got into the insurance business, but with (reality TV show) ‘Amish Mafia’ out there, who knows what people think anymore?”

Michael Sadowski

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